BOSTON — In a reversal announced 18 days before the start of the fall semester, officials at the flagship University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst said Thursday night they would no longer repopulate their residence halls with students taking online classes.
In late June, the school announced a reopening plan under which most classes would be held remotely except for labs, studios and other courses that require hands-on work. Students were nonetheless invited to return to the large campus, where dorms and dining halls would operate under new health and safety precautions.
At the time, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said school officials had heard “loud and clear” from students that they wanted to be in and around campus.
Citing worsening conditions around COVID-19 nationally and the risk of having to close campus mid-semester, Subbaswamy sent a message to students and their families Thursday night, informing them the school will not offer housing to students whose courses are entirely remote.
Only students who are taking “essential face-to-face classes” will be granted access to dorms and other campus facilities, Subbaswamy wrote. He said school officials “strongly urge” students taking remote courses not to return to the Amherst area. Classes begin Aug. 24.
“I realize that today’s announcement will cause disruption for many of you and is a major departure from the plan we released in June,” Subbaswamy wrote. “Our intention at that time, with our plans to conduct most classes remotely while inviting all students back to campus, was to strike a balance between the immersive residential experience so important to our students’ development and the health and safety of the entire community in the Amherst area. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and detailed planning, the proliferation of the pandemic has left us with no choice but to pursue this more stringent approach.”
The chancellor said situations involving students who are dependent on campus housing and dining, those in health care fields, and international students with specific visa requirements “will be handled on a case-by case basis, and in most instances will be accommodated.”
“Quite simply, when we make a clear-eyed assessment of the public health data and comparable reopening attempts that are playing out across the country, we feel that we have no choice but to make the difficult decision to enact these changes to our fall plan,” the message said. “Our deliberations were also informed by the health and safety concerns expressed by our faculty and staff and by the citizens and leadership in our host community, Amherst.”
UMass Amherst had more than 24,000 undergraduates enrolled as of fall 2019, plus more than 7,000 graduate students and more than 1,400 full-time faculty members. In June, school officials said they expected about 14% of the student body would be enrolled in the labs, studios and performances that require face-to-face instruction.
The acceleration of the COVID-19 pandemic within the United States has prompted other Massachusetts schools to rethink their fall plans as well.
Northampton’s Smith College, which had been planning for on-campus instruction, announced Wednesday it would instead offer all fall courses remotely, and Williams College, in Williamstown, on Thursday issued a strict set of rules under which students will be quarantined in their dorms until receiving two negative COVID-19 tests and unable to leave campus, including for shopping trips, through at least September.
Mount Holyoke College on Friday announced it would not bring students back to campus in the fall, with President Sonya Stephens writing that “the current path of COVID-19 in the United States, and its devastating consequences, present too great a risk to our reopening plan.”
In Boston, City Councilor Kenzie Bok wrote this week to the presidents of Northeastern University and Boston University, asking them to hold classes remotely instead of bringing students back to campus and into the city’s neighborhoods.